When the COVID-19 pandemic shut down most of the world, musicians everywhere stepped onto some fairly unusual stages in support of essential workers. Maria Manna, an award-winning jazz, blues, and gospel vocalist based in Victoria, BC, was no exception. To express her gratitude and spread cheer, for 75 evenings straight, rain or shine, Manna performed two songs on her condo balcony and streamed them live on Facebook.
“It was my husband’s idea,” says Manna. “My performances had been cancelled. People all over the world were quarantined or hospitalized. The death toll was rising. The first ray of hope among all the gloom was the Italian people nightly singing from their balconies. My parents are from small towns in Italy, so when Chris suggested I do the same, that was all the encouragement I needed.”
Before the pandemic, Manna was booked for two shows with Grammy winner Diane Schurr - one in Victoria and the other in Edmonton. She was scheduled to attend a meeting in New York to launch the Canadian chapter of the Jazz Foundation of America. Her charity foundation, the BC Vocalist Society, had dozens of aspiring vocalists enrolled for the first workshop. She was in the midst of producing the musical theatre production Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill in Victoria and Its Amore, a musical theatre production she wrote.
The first performer to livestream a gig from Hermann’s Jazz Club in Victoria following a distressing conversation with a cousin in Italy, Manna decided to amplify her mission of cheer. In her cousin’s town of 10,000 people, nine people had died the day before. “She sounded like someone who felt doomed,” Manna says. “I knew I had to do something.”
After translating Oscar Peterson’s “Hymn to Freedom” into Italian, she invited pianist Ashely Wey and bassist Louis Rudner to accompany her for a streamed online concert performed at Hermann’s. It was watched by thousands around the world, including many people in Italy.
The artist also performed in two JamKazam online concerts, one of which was a world-fest, with musician performing from their homes in real-time. As Maria phrased it, “We may not be able to touch each other physically, but we can still touch each other emotionally through hopeful words and beautiful music.”
For two-and-a-half months, Manna spent three hours each day selecting songs and rehearsing for her nightly performances. Each evening, she stepped onto her balcony and offered words of encouragement to her neighbours and online viewers. With her husband behind the iPhone camera, at 7 p.m., she rang a cowbell with a wooden spoon generally reserved for stirring spaghetti sauce, thanked frontline workers, and sang two songs. “Rainy days were a challenge,” she notes. “Standing under the big umbrella my husband purchased for my balcony performances, I had to hold the computer with the music tracks while singing. It was a bit of a balancing act.”
Always happy to share a stage, Manna invited other vocalists to join one of her nightly performances. On different evenings, Maureen Washington, Scott Clarke, Shai Thompson, and Tim Kyle each sang a solo and then a duet with her.
Manna also took requests and did her best to sing the songs people wanted to hear. After each show, some with more than 4,000 views, she acknowledged every comment made by her followers. By her final performance, Manna had sung 165 songs in a variety of languages: English, French, Spanish, Hebrew, Portuguese, and Italian.
As Canada slowly loosened restrictions and British Columbia was about to embark on phase three of its reopening, Manna decided to take a break from her nightly performances with the promise to resume should there be another spike in the pandemic. Wanting her 75th and final show to be one her thousands of worldwide viewers would remember throughout the summer, Manna invited local star Duncan Meiklejohn and her previous guest performers to join her for a streamed show on the patio of the Westin Bear Mountain Resort in Victoria.
Those who follow Maria Manna’s career aren’t likely surprised by her efforts to spread cheer, hope, and love around the globe. As a result of her numerous humanitarian endeavours, Manna is a 2013 recipient of the Governor General Caring Canadian Award and a 2016 recipient of the Governor General Sovereign Medal. She’s also an inductee in the Alberta Music Archives.
When asked if she misses her nightly performance, Manna was candid: “I do, but the break is welcomed. I feel like I just completed a run of shows in Vegas.” She laughed. “Of course, I would do it all again.”
This piece was contributed by freelance writer Joy Ross (Joy_ross@hotmail.com)